September 24, 2019
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Americans aren’t ready to weather a sustained downturn, report shows

Jon Elswick | AP
Jon Elswick | AP

Amid what will likely become the longest period of sustained economic growth on record, a new report shows millions of middle-class and low-income Americans still aren’t on solid enough ground to weather a sustained downturn.

Since the Federal Reserve’s annual report on household well-being began in 2013, the survey (most recently of more than 11,000 Americans) has become a key measure of whether the benefits of the recovery have reached beyond the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

While this year’s report painted a positive picture overall, officials said, it identified underlying fragility and exposed pockets of distress. In line after line, the report lays out the everyday concerns that continue to plague U.S. households.

Four in 10 people (39 percent) said they wouldn’t be able to scrape together the cash to meet a $400 emergency expense, down slightly from 41 percent in 2017. Even without any sudden expense, about 17 percent of adults said they would miss payment on at least one bill during the month they were surveyed.

More than six in 10 said losing their job would mean they couldn’t cover three months of expenses, even if they took out loans, sold assets or borrowed from friends and family.

Only 36 percent said their retirement savings are on track.

Almost a quarter of Americans skipped some form of medical care in the past year because they couldn’t afford it. Separately, one in five faced major, unexpected medical bills. About four in 10 of those folks were still carrying debt related to those bills.

The survey covers 2018, a year when the unemployment rate averaged 3.9 percent, the lowest it’s been since 1969, and the economy grew 2.9 percent, matching its post-Great Recession high. Average hourly earnings grew 3 percent, easily the fastest rate since the recession’s end. But those figures are broad national averages — if gains are going disproportionately to the wealthy few, it could miss trends among the majority of U.S. workers.

“Another year of economic expansion and the low national unemployment rates did little to narrow the persistent economic disparities by race, education, and geography,” the report’s authors wrote.

In particular, measures of economic distress continue to spotlight black workers and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics. Only 47 percent of black adults rated their local economy as good or excellent in 2018, compared with 68 percent of whites.

Black Americans are less likely to be working and less likely to be satisfied with how many hours they’re getting on the job.

The disparities are sharp even among Americans who attended college. About 28 percent of black people are behind on their student loans, as are 15 percent of Hispanics. The number for white folks is just 7 percent. The gap may be related to access to education — black Americans were more than five times more likely than white ones to have attended a for-profit university.


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